By Laurel Sterling Prisco MA, RD, CDN
Vegans, similar to vegetarians, do not consume meat, fish, or poultry. In addition to that, they do not use other animal products and by-products such as eggs, dairy products, gelatin, and honey. Their diets are free of cholesterol, and are low in saturated fat due to the animal products they avoid. High-monounsaturated fat foods in their diet include: oils (olive, macadamia nut), nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, and cashews), nut butters, seed butters (sesame, sunflower), avocado, and extra virgin coconut.
Vegans should make sure to include good sources of alpha-linolenic acid in their diets such as flaxseed, flaxseed oil, tofu, fermented soy, and walnuts in order to maximize their production of EPA and DHA (omega-3 fatty acids).
Protein sources for a vegan include: lentils, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, nut butters, nuts, brown rice, quinoa, and fermented soy/rice/hemp/chia protein shakes or bars. L-carnitine, which is most often found in meat sources, is commonly deficient in a vegan’s diet. L-carnitine is similar to an amino acid (also related to B vitamins). Taking an amino-acid supplement or eating grains, such as cornmeal, that have been fortified with lysine are important. To manufacture l-carnitine we need enough iron, B1, B6, vitamin C, l-lysine, and l-methionine.
Vitamin D3 is not found in the vegan diet. It can be made by sunlight exposure to the skin if you live somewhere other than Syracuse….just kidding! Vitamin D2 (a vegetarian/vegan food source) will not be converted into D3 (the most bioavailable form) if sunscreen is applied on the body. Approximately 15-30 minutes of summer sun without sunscreen on arms, legs, and face three times a week is recommended for vitamin D production. People should get their Serum 25(OH) D level taken in the winter months to see their level. Levels should optimally be between 40-60ng/ml. If it is low, then a vegan vitamin D supplement should be taken.
Calcium is found in dark green vegetables, tofu made with calcium sulfate, and calcium-fortified orange juice. Oxalic acid, which is found in spinach, rhubarb, chard, and beet greens, binds with calcium and reduces calcium absorption.
Vegans should consider adding a well-absorbed calcium/magnesium supplement to their regime taken with the vitamin D supplement.
Dried beans and dark green leafy vegetables are especially good sources of iron. Lentils, blackstrap molasses, kidney beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, Swiss chard, tempeh, black beans, prune juice, beet greens, tahini, peas, bulghur, bok choy, raisins, watermelon, millet, and kale have non-heme iron in them. Non-heme (plant source) forms of iron are not well absorbed; therefore, they should be consumed along with foods containing vitamin C in order to increase iron absorption.
A great non-animal source of B12 is nutritional yeast. Tempeh, miso, and seaweed (dulse, kelp, nori) contain B12, but the amount of vitamin B12 present depends on the type of processing the food undergoes. It is especially important for pregnant and lactating women, infants, and children to have reliable sources of vitamin B12 in their diets. Supplementation may be necessary; there is a vegan B12 supplement from Garden of Life.
There are various supplement companies that have vegetarian and/or vegan products such as New Chapter Organics, MegaFoods, and Garden of Life. Check them out!